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Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there's always magic in the air
But when you're walkin' down that street
And you ain't had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere

— from the song "On Broadway"
From Left to Right: Eric LaJuan Summers, Dennis Stowe, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Bernard Dotson, and E. Clayton Cornelious
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
It's not that I wasn't listening to the radio during the 1950's and 1960's, but I just didn't think that songs like "Ruby Baby," "Poison Ivy,""Yakety Yak," Love Potion #9," and "D.W. Washburn" had anything in common. What I was to learn eventually was that they, and countless other songs we listened to on the radio and on juke boxes were composed by the team of (Jerry) Lieber and (Mike) Stoller.

Perhaps because it has no book, no discernable continuity, point of view or structure, you could say that Smokey Joe's Café falls easily into the genre that was eventually characterized as the jukebox musical. It is also the jukebox musical at its purest and best. And the exciting and joyous new production, under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee, at the Paper Mill Playhouse proves it.

Smokey Joe's Café first opened on Broadway in 1995. It proved that audiences would vociferously respond to songs they knew and that fondly recalled a time and place. It had a run that exceeded five years and certainly helped to pave the way for such future songbook retreads (excluding Mamma Mia, Crazy for You, Hot Feet etc. that wedged old songs into a new book) such as the successful Movin' Out and unsuccessful Good Vibrations and Ring of Fire. Million Dollar Quartet recently opened to mostly favorable if not ecstatic rave reviews.

Not taking anything away from the original cast, director Hoebee could not have found nine more personable, extraordinarily talented or attractive performers to make Smokey Joe's Café all that it can be. For starters, Hoebee has, indeed, given the show a subtly engaging kind of continuity that allows the show's 39 songs to segue cleverly and wittily from one to the next. The performers — Jackie Burn, E. Clayton Cornelious, Bernard Dotson, Felicia Finley, Carly Hughes, Andrew Rannells, Dennis Stowe, Eric LaJuan Summers, Maia Nkenge Wilson—group and regroup, pair off and solo with unstoppable enthusiasm. To top it off, each is a sensational dancer. They should all be credited with giving an added dimension and a jolt to virtually every song.

Many of the songs by the successful and prolific Lieber and Stoller once provided massive hits for Peggy Lee, The Coasters, Big Mama Thornton, and of course, Elvis Presley ("Hound Dog, quot; and "Jailhouse Rock"). Admirers of their songs will no doubt feel twinges of nostalgia. And I suspect that purists of the genre will also be pleased by the interpretative styling of the songs, as well as by the more than competent 7-piece on-stage back-up band under the baton of Tom Helm. The musical journey moves from "The Neighborhood" to Act II's title locale.

If I have to choose my favorite performer it would be Maia Nkenge Wilson for the way she soulfully embraced "Fools in Love" and then gave "what for" to her "no account" man in "Hound Dog. quot; The rough and tough cookie Jackie Burns and the devilishly insinuatingly Carly Hughes put a little fisticuffs into their skirmish called "Trouble." It may be an old stunt, but the endlessly long purple feather boa that drapes Carly's shoulders gets a workout during "Don Juan." But it was more than that boa that made us take notice of the grand garments and dazzling gowns contributed by costume designer Brian Hemesath.

Highly energized blonde Felicia Finley belts the business out of "I Keep Forgettin," and "Pearl's a Singer." But it takes Eric LaJuan Summers to stop the show with his dramatically intense "I (who have nothing)." E. Clayton Cornelious, Bernard Dotson (who serves as dance captain), Andrew Rannells and Dennis Stowe concertedly capture the spirit of Lieber and Stoller with their superb singing and exuberant dancing. Choreographer Denis Jones puts the company through its most ingenious paces using faux mirrors for "Shoppin' for Clothes. ".

The production is enhanced by Jonathan Spencer's smartly designed settings that effectively employs glittering curtains, neon (splendid lighting design by Charlie Morrison), and the obligatory prism ball. To use a Lieber and Stoller song title: This is a show that would look just fine once again "On Broadway."

Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller 
Directed by Mark S. Hoebee

Cast: Jackie Burns, e. Clayton Cornelious, Bernard Dotson, Felicia Finley, Carly Hughes, Andrew Rannells, Dennis Stowe, Eric LaJuan Summers, Maia Nkenge Wilson 
Scenic Design: Jonathan Spencer 
Costume Design: Brian Hemesath 
Lighting Design: Charlie Morrison 
Sound Design: Randy Hansen 
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission 
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J.  
(973) 376 – 4343 
Prices: $25 - $92 
Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 1:30 PM & 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 1:30 PM & 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 1:30 PM & 7 PM.  
Previews began 04/07/10 
Opened 04/11/10 
Ends 05/02/10 
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/11/10

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Neighborhood /The Company
  • Young Blood /E. Clayton with Dennis, Bernard, and Eric
  • Falling /Jackie
  • Ruby Baby /Andrew with E. Clayton, Dennis, Bernard, and Eric
  • Dance With Me /Bernard and Maia with E. Clayton, Dennis, and Eric
  • Neighborhood (Reprise) / Maia, Carly, Jackie, and Felicia
  • Keep On Rollin' /Eric, E. Clayton, Bernard, and Dennis
  • Searchin' /Eric with E. Clayton, Bernard, and Dennis
  • Kansas City /Maia, Felicia, and Andrew
  • Trouble /Jackie and Carly
  • Love Me/Don't / E. Clayton and Felicia
  • Fools Fall in Love /Maia
  • Poison Ivy /Bernard with E. Clayton, Dennis, and Eric
  • Don Juan /Carly
  • Shoppin' for Clothes/ Eric and Dennis with E. Clayton, Bernard, Andrew, and Jackie
  • Keep Forgettin' /Felicia
  • On Broadway /E. Clayton, Dennis, Bernard, and Eric
  • D.W. Washburn /Maia and The Company
  • Saved /Maia and The Company
Act Two
  • Baby, That is Rock & Roll /The Company
  • Yakety Yak /The Company
  • Charlie Brown/ The Company
  • Pearl's a Singer /Felicia
  • Stay a While/ E. Clayton and Andrew
  • Teach Me How to Shimmy /Andrew and Jackie with E. Clayton and Eric
  • You're the Boss /Dennis and Carly
  • Smokey Joe's Cafe /The Company
  • Loving You /Bernard and The Company
  • Treat Me Nice / Eric
  • Hound Dog /Maia
  • Little Egypt/ Dennis with E. Clayton, Bernard, Andrew, and Eric
  • I'm a Woman / Maia, Carly, Jackie, and Felicia
  • There Goes My Baby /E. Clayton with Dennis, Bernard, Andrew, and Eric
  • Love Pot/on #9 /E. Clayton with Dennis, Bernard, Andrew, and Eric
  • Some Cats Know /Carly
  • Jailhouse Rock /Andrew and The Company
  • Fools Fall In Love (Reprise) /Maia
  • Spanish Harlem /Bernard and Carly
  • / (Who Have Nothing) / Eric
  • Neighborhood (Reprise) /Felicia
  • Stand By Me /E. Clayton and The Company
  • Baby, That is Rock & Roll /The Company
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